Monday, March 9, 2009

When a Victimized Ethnic Identity Leads to Collective Violence

The Independent has an interesting piece up penned by Antony Lerman titled, “Must Jews always see themselves the victims?” (3/7/09). He argues that the Jewish identity is mired in calls for sympathy, and that while international commiserating is surely warranted, the ongoing portrayal of victimization without an acknowledgment of co-occurring provocation is inaccurate.

Lerman relies heavily on Jewish intellectuals to make his case:

Some pioneering research, published as Israel's bombing of Gaza began, throws some light on this. It reveals just how much the feeling that no matter what we do, we are perpetually at the mercy of others applies to Jewish Israelis. A team led by Professor Daniel Bar Tal of Tel Aviv University, one of the world's leading political psychologists, questioned Israeli Jews about their memory of the conflict with the Arabs, from its inception to the present, and found that their "consciousness is characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering". The researchers found a close connection between that collective memory and the memory of "past persecutions of Jews" and the Holocaust, the feeling that "the whole world is against us". If such a study were to be conducted among Jews in Britain, I suspect the results would be very similar.

For Jews to see themselves in this way is understandable, but it's a distortion and deeply damaging. As Professor Bar Tal says, this view relies primarily on prolonged indoctrination that is based on ignorance and even nurtures it.

Provocative words no doubt. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict differs from many of the other ethnic conflicts raging across our globe in that it is based much more so on an expressed ethnic right to a land base that is not terribly rich in natural resources. Instead, Jewish ethnic identity is rooted in victimization and religious ties, which in turn "justifies" attacks on Palestinians (and likely visa versa, though that is not Lerman’s focus). More from Lerman:

The hope and optimism which accompanied the collapse of communism and the Jewish revival in Europe in 1989 have certainly been eclipsed by a defensive, fearful, ethnocentric mindset, which makes a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict ever harder to achieve and casts a pall over Jewish life everywhere. So why are we reading our own times through the prism of a lachrymose view of Jewish history?

Lerman’s point regarding ethnocentrism is key and coincides nicely with theoretical viewpoints made in Stefan Wolff’s excellent (though sometimes confusing) book, Ethnic Conflict: A Global Perspective:

…the nature of demands made by ethnic groups is not necessarily an indicator the strength and cohesiveness of the ethnic identity of group members, but rather a reflection of the degree of threat under which group identity is perceived to be. Current perceptions and past experiences often function as an escalator in this context – the worse a group’s historical experience within a particular state and the more threatening current state policies are perceived to be to the identity of the group and its members, the more likely will demands be high and the means with which they are realized be indiscriminate, including violence. (p. 41, 42).

The indiscriminate nature of violence that characterizes an increasing number of ethnic conflicts since the 1990s includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where civilians are victims as much as, if not more so than, opposing military forces. And as covered in varied media accounts, a significant number of Palestinian and Israeli children are showing severe forms of physical and emotional trauma due to their exposure to violence. From the BBC News:

Several hundred of the 1,300 Palestinian deaths were children and some accounts of civilian deaths have raised concerns of war crimes…

Ongoing trauma too plagues the residents of Israel's southern towns, who live under the constant threat of Palestinian rocket fire, with about 8,000 rockets and mortars fired since 2001.

At least 18 people have been killed in that time. Children under eight have known little else but a constantly heightened state of anxiety.

It’s truly amazing that ethnic groups establish their collective identities to such an extent that collective violence escalates to this level.

(Photo courtesy of the BBC News)

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1 comment:

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